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A Map of Europe's Fastest-Eroding Coast
Ravenser Odd is just one of 29 towns swallowed by the North Sea
Watch the grey waves pound the Yorkshire coast anywhere between Flamborough Head in the north and Spurn Head in the south, and you get a false sense of timelessness. This forty-mile stretch of beach is the fastest-eroding coastline in Europe. The sea out there used to be land, and the land you’re standing on will soon be eaten by the waves.
Every year, the sea gains an average of five feet on the land. In late-Roman times, the surf broke three miles further east. The strip of land that fell into the North Sea in the intervening centuries contained at least twenty-nine villages and towns.
This part of the East Riding of Yorkshire, bounded by the North Sea in the east, the estuary of the Humber in the south and the Yorkshire Wolds in the north and west is known as Holderness (1). It is flat and formerly swampy, drained from the Middle Ages onward. Much of the underground, and of the beachside cliffs, is made up of soft clay, which erodes easily.
Hence the rapid marine erosion, which sweeps away as much as two million tonnes of soil a year between Flamborough and Spurn Heads (2), which are made of sterner stuff. The coast’s loss is Spurn Head’s gain. About three percent of the eroded material is deposited there. Spurn Head keeps growing as the coast to the north of it keeps shrinking.
This map shows the present coastline in green, the lands lost since late-Roman times in orange-brown, and in that strip the names and locations of more than two dozen places swallowed by or abandoned to the waves, from Wilsthorpe close to Bridlington in the north, to Ravenser Odd in the south, not far from Spurn Head. In between, vanished towns with resonant names that have nevertheless been wiped from other maps and most memories: Hartburn, Colden Parva, Monkwell, Sand-le-Mere, Out Newton.
Coastal erosion continues, despite coastal defences that include a concrete seawalls and timber groynes – long structures sticking into the sea to prevent the beach being washed away by longshore drift. These have had limited benefits, and sometimes even adverse effects. Add to that a geological process called isostatic recoil, which means the area is sinking at a rate of thee millimetres per year. Combined with rising sea levels due to climate change, the North Sea could be half a metre higher here by 2050.
The map shown here is based on T. Sheppard’s, The Lost Towns of the Yorkshire Coast, published in 1912. This version was produced by Dr. Caitlin Green for an article on her website, in which she focuses on what was perhaps the shortest-lived, but certainly the best-documented and arguably the most interesting of the lost coastal towns of Holderness: Ravenser Odd.
Ravenser Odd was an island town founded on a spit of land thrown up by the sea in the 1230s. An Inquisition report from 1290 states that:
Forty years ago, a certain ship was cast away at Ravenser Odd, where no house was then built, which ship a certain man appropriated to himself, and from it made for himself a hut or cabin, which he inhabited for so long a time that he received ships and merchants there, and sold them food and drink, and afterwards others began to dwell there.
Rising from the sea, Ravenser Odd grew by it and prospered from it, before the sea swallowed it up again – all in not much more than a century. The exact location of the island-town is uncertain. It is usually situated east of where Spurn Head is today, at a distance of more than a mile from the mainland shore.
Ravenser Odd grew busy and rich fast. In 1251, it obtained a charter for a market and a fair. By 1290, the rival port of Grimsby, on the southern bank of the Humber, suffered so much from the competition that it accused Ravenser Odd of piracy, and was partially abandoned. In 1299, the town received a borough charter from Edward I and a thirty-day fair. Ravenser Odd sent representatives to Edward’s Parliament. The busy port appears on a map c. 1325 by famous Italian cartographer Pietro Vesconte.
But the sea was eager to take back the land she had thrown up. From the mid-fourteenth century, erosion started eating away at the island. In 1346, it was reported that the town being 'daily diminished and carried away'. Around that time, more than 200 buildings and properties had already been lost to the sea. The destruction reached apocalyptic levels in the next years, according to contemporary reports:
The inundations of the sea and of the Humber had destroyed to the foundations the chapel of Ravenserodd, built in honour of the Blessed Virgin Mary, so that the corpses and bones of the dead there horribly appeared, and the same inundations daily threatened the destruction of the said town.
Not long after 1355, the year in which the deceased of Ravenser Odd had been reburied in dry land at Easington, the whole town was annihilated by the river Humber and the North Sea. The last mention of the town dates from 1358, when its ships are mentioned as the means transport for wool from Boston to Flanders. By 1362, it was most likely abandoned, because some men were brought before court for 'throwing down and rooting up the timber of the staithes at Ravensrod', an indication that the town was derelict. Hull took over the drowned city’s seaport role.
Hull has prospered while Ravenser Odd has vanished from history. But the city on the Humber should not get too complacent. The following two maps show two possible end points for coastal erosion in Holderness, at some point a few millennia into the future. Hull survives in scenario A, but scenario B is likelier.
Map A assumes no significant further rise of sea levels. The natural end-point of the erosion will create a wide bay between Flamborough Head and Cromer in Norfolk – two hard headlands. Map B takes into account the likelier scenario of significant sea level rise. The result: the coastline retreats much further east, back to its pre-glacial position. In this scenario, Hull goes the way of Ravenser Odd, albeit a few thousand years into the future.
Strange Maps #830
Got a strange map? Let me know at firstname.lastname@example.org.
(1) Holderness – the name may derive from the Danish hold, the name for a nobleman with considerable territorial possessions. Ness may refer to a nose-shaped promontory jutting out into the sea. William the Conqueror granted the lordship of Holderness to Drogo de la Beuvrière, a Flemish associate of his. Drogo fled England after the death of his wife, whom he may have poisoned by accident. Before leaving, he secured a loan from William. Only after he left did William learn of the death of Drogo's wife, his niece. He forfeited Drogo's lands and titles and ordered his arrest, but he had disappeared, possibly back to Flanders.
(2) In Spurn Head, part three of Will Self's Walking to Hollywood, the rapid erosion of the Holderness Coast is used as a metaphor for the effects of Alzheimer's disease.
Certain water beetles can escape from frogs after being consumed.
- A Japanese scientist shows that some beetles can wiggle out of frog's butts after being eaten whole.
- The research suggests the beetle can get out in as little as 7 minutes.
- Most of the beetles swallowed in the experiment survived with no complications after being excreted.
In what is perhaps one of the weirdest experiments ever that comes from the category of "why did anyone need to know this?" scientists have proven that the Regimbartia attenuata beetle can climb out of a frog's butt after being eaten.
The research was carried out by Kobe University ecologist Shinji Sugiura. His team found that the majority of beetles swallowed by black-spotted pond frogs (Pelophylax nigromaculatus) used in their experiment managed to escape about 6 hours after and were perfectly fine.
"Here, I report active escape of the aquatic beetle R. attenuata from the vents of five frog species via the digestive tract," writes Sugiura in a new paper, adding "although adult beetles were easily eaten by frogs, 90 percent of swallowed beetles were excreted within six hours after being eaten and, surprisingly, were still alive."
One bug even got out in as little as 7 minutes.
Sugiura also tried putting wax on the legs of some of the beetles, preventing them from moving. These ones were not able to make it out alive, taking from 38 to 150 hours to be digested.
Naturally, as anyone would upon encountering such a story, you're wondering where's the video. Thankfully, the scientists recorded the proceedings:
The Regimbartia attenuata beetle can be found in the tropics, especially as pests in fish hatcheries. It's not the only kind of creature that can survive being swallowed. A recent study showed that snake eels are able to burrow out of the stomachs of fish using their sharp tails, only to become stuck, die, and be mummified in the gut cavity. Scientists are calling the beetle's ability the first documented "active prey escape." Usually, such travelers through the digestive tract have particular adaptations that make it possible for them to withstand extreme pH and lack of oxygen. The researchers think the beetle's trick is in inducing the frog to open a so-called "vent" controlled by the sphincter muscle.
"Individuals were always excreted head first from the frog vent, suggesting that R. attenuata stimulates the hind gut, urging the frog to defecate," explains Sugiura.
For more information, check out the study published in Current Biology.
Are "humanized" pigs the future of medical research?
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration requires all new medicines to be tested in animals before use in people. Pigs make better medical research subjects than mice, because they are closer to humans in size, physiology and genetic makeup.
In recent years, our team at Iowa State University has found a way to make pigs an even closer stand-in for humans. We have successfully transferred components of the human immune system into pigs that lack a functional immune system. This breakthrough has the potential to accelerate medical research in many areas, including virus and vaccine research, as well as cancer and stem cell therapeutics.
Existing biomedical models
Severe Combined Immunodeficiency, or SCID, is a genetic condition that causes impaired development of the immune system. People can develop SCID, as dramatized in the 1976 movie “The Boy in the Plastic Bubble." Other animals can develop SCID, too, including mice.
Researchers in the 1980s recognized that SCID mice could be implanted with human immune cells for further study. Such mice are called “humanized" mice and have been optimized over the past 30 years to study many questions relevant to human health.
Mice are the most commonly used animal in biomedical research, but results from mice often do not translate well to human responses, thanks to differences in metabolism, size and divergent cell functions compared with people.
Nonhuman primates are also used for medical research and are certainly closer stand-ins for humans. But using them for this purpose raises numerous ethical considerations. With these concerns in mind, the National Institutes of Health retired most of its chimpanzees from biomedical research in 2013.
Alternative animal models are in demand.
Swine are a viable option for medical research because of their similarities to humans. And with their widespread commercial use, pigs are met with fewer ethical dilemmas than primates. Upwards of 100 million hogs are slaughtered each year for food in the U.S.
In 2012, groups at Iowa State University and Kansas State University, including Jack Dekkers, an expert in animal breeding and genetics, and Raymond Rowland, a specialist in animal diseases, serendipitously discovered a naturally occurring genetic mutation in pigs that caused SCID. We wondered if we could develop these pigs to create a new biomedical model.
Our group has worked for nearly a decade developing and optimizing SCID pigs for applications in biomedical research. In 2018, we achieved a twofold milestone when working with animal physiologist Jason Ross and his lab. Together we developed a more immunocompromised pig than the original SCID pig – and successfully humanized it, by transferring cultured human immune stem cells into the livers of developing piglets.
During early fetal development, immune cells develop within the liver, providing an opportunity to introduce human cells. We inject human immune stem cells into fetal pig livers using ultrasound imaging as a guide. As the pig fetus develops, the injected human immune stem cells begin to differentiate – or change into other kinds of cells – and spread through the pig's body. Once SCID piglets are born, we can detect human immune cells in their blood, liver, spleen and thymus gland. This humanization is what makes them so valuable for testing new medical treatments.
We have found that human ovarian tumors survive and grow in SCID pigs, giving us an opportunity to study ovarian cancer in a new way. Similarly, because human skin survives on SCID pigs, scientists may be able to develop new treatments for skin burns. Other research possibilities are numerous.
The ultraclean SCID pig biocontainment facility in Ames, Iowa. Adeline Boettcher, CC BY-SA
Pigs in a bubble
Since our pigs lack essential components of their immune system, they are extremely susceptible to infection and require special housing to help reduce exposure to pathogens.
SCID pigs are raised in bubble biocontainment facilities. Positive pressure rooms, which maintain a higher air pressure than the surrounding environment to keep pathogens out, are coupled with highly filtered air and water. All personnel are required to wear full personal protective equipment. We typically have anywhere from two to 15 SCID pigs and breeding animals at a given time. (Our breeding animals do not have SCID, but they are genetic carriers of the mutation, so their offspring may have SCID.)
As with any animal research, ethical considerations are always front and center. All our protocols are approved by Iowa State University's Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee and are in accordance with The National Institutes of Health's Guide for the Care and Use of Laboratory Animals.
Every day, twice a day, our pigs are checked by expert caretakers who monitor their health status and provide engagement. We have veterinarians on call. If any pigs fall ill, and drug or antibiotic intervention does not improve their condition, the animals are humanely euthanized.
Our goal is to continue optimizing our humanized SCID pigs so they can be more readily available for stem cell therapy testing, as well as research in other areas, including cancer. We hope the development of the SCID pig model will pave the way for advancements in therapeutic testing, with the long-term goal of improving human patient outcomes.
Adeline Boettcher earned her research-based Ph.D. working on the SCID project in 2019.
Satellite imagery can help better predict volcanic eruptions by monitoring changes in surface temperature near volcanoes.
- A recent study used data collected by NASA satellites to conduct a statistical analysis of surface temperatures near volcanoes that erupted from 2002 to 2019.
- The results showed that surface temperatures near volcanoes gradually increased in the months and years prior to eruptions.
- The method was able to detect potential eruptions that were not anticipated by other volcano monitoring methods, such as eruptions in Japan in 2014 and Chile in 2015.
How can modern technology help warn us of impending volcanic eruptions?
One promising answer may lie in satellite imagery. In a recent study published in Nature Geoscience, researchers used infrared data collected by NASA satellites to study the conditions near volcanoes in the months and years before they erupted.
The results revealed a pattern: Prior to eruptions, an unusually large amount of heat had been escaping through soil near volcanoes. This diffusion of subterranean heat — which is a byproduct of "large-scale thermal unrest" — could potentially represent a warning sign of future eruptions.
Conceptual model of large-scale thermal unrestCredit: Girona et al.
For the study, the researchers conducted a statistical analysis of changes in surface temperature near volcanoes, using data collected over 16.5 years by NASA's Terra and Aqua satellites. The results showed that eruptions tended to occur around the time when surface temperatures near the volcanoes peaked.
Eruptions were preceded by "subtle but significant long-term (years), large-scale (tens of square kilometres) increases in their radiant heat flux (up to ~1 °C in median radiant temperature)," the researchers wrote. After eruptions, surface temperatures reliably decreased, though the cool-down period took longer for bigger eruptions.
"Volcanoes can experience thermal unrest for several years before eruption," the researchers wrote. "This thermal unrest is dominated by a large-scale phenomenon operating over extensive areas of volcanic edifices, can be an early indicator of volcanic reactivation, can increase prior to different types of eruption and can be tracked through a statistical analysis of little-processed (that is, radiance or radiant temperature) satellite-based remote sensing data with high temporal resolution."
Temporal variations of target volcanoesCredit: Girona et al.
Although using satellites to monitor thermal unrest wouldn't enable scientists to make hyper-specific eruption predictions (like predicting the exact day), it could significantly improve prediction efforts. Seismologists and volcanologists currently use a range of techniques to forecast eruptions, including monitoring for gas emissions, ground deformation, and changes to nearby water channels, to name a few.
Still, none of these techniques have proven completely reliable, both because of the science and the practical barriers (e.g. funding) standing in the way of large-scale monitoring. In 2014, for example, Japan's Mount Ontake suddenly erupted, killing 63 people. It was the nation's deadliest eruption in nearly a century.
In the study, the researchers found that surface temperatures near Mount Ontake had been increasing in the two years prior to the eruption. To date, no other monitoring method has detected "well-defined" warning signs for the 2014 disaster, the researchers noted.
The researchers hope satellite-based infrared monitoring techniques, combined with existing methods, can improve prediction efforts for volcanic eruptions. Volcanic eruptions have killed about 2,000 people since 2000.
"Our findings can open new horizons to better constrain magma–hydrothermal interaction processes, especially when integrated with other datasets, allowing us to explore the thermal budget of volcanoes and anticipate eruptions that are very difficult to forecast through other geophysical/geochemical methods."